Today, our political discourse is often divisive. Rather than viewing political counterparts as fellow citizens with shared goals but different prescriptions for solving our collective challenges, more and more we seem to demonize and combat them.
In times like these, is it possible to understand one another and find novel solutions to live better together? Perhaps turning to the wisdom of one of history's great economists can offer some guidance.
Of course, politicians and citizens have always had strong disagreements on the role, scope and scale of government. But in contemporary political discourse, terms like political polarization are frequently invoked to explain this particularly toxic climate and how it bleeds over to everyday life.
Even politicians are frustrated by this. Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio reflected on the lack of civic debate in Congress: "We have become a society incapable of having debates anymore. … If this body is incapable of having those debates, there will be no place in this country where those debates can occur." And politicians on both sides of the aisle appeal to civility when polarization turns to violence.
Our increasing inability to engage in civil discourse over disagreements is quite bleak.
Adam Smith, one of the great moral philosophers and political economists of the Scottish Enlightenment era, offers some practical advice in his book, the "Theory of Moral Sentiments." Admittedly, Smith is best known for his other book "The Wealth of Nations," where he tries to understand how those nations that were once poor became rich. In the "Theory of Moral Sentiments," however, he catalogs the universal human desires to live a virtuous life and to live peaceably together.
Moderation in our social interactions, Smith explains, enables us to relate to and understand one another. A commitment to moderation, even and especially when the distance between our positions is quite large, is the best strategy for not only coexisting with others but also ensuring that others hear our positions and sympathize with them.
Moderation does not necessarily mean adopting moderate policy positions. Smith is not suggesting we compromise our political views and values. Instead, he is suggesting that we think about how we present these views and values to others and how we characterize those who disagree with us. It's a reminder to think of our political opponents as human beings, seek connection and embrace comity.
Humans are fundamentally social beings. We interact with others daily, whether by engaging in commerce, attending religious services or participating in civic or social activities. We seek recognition, understanding and approval. We form families, tight circles of friends and broader communities. Smith recognized that our survival and happiness depends upon our relying on others for not only goods and services but also emotional support.
Despite our need for the aid and approval of others, no one can fully understand our personal circumstances and feelings. We can, according to Smith, sympathize with our fellow human beings and hope for and even expect their sympathy in return. We can put ourselves in another's shoes and imagine how we might feel and what we might do if confronted with their challenges and endowed with their material and emotional resources. If their feelings, opinions and actions seem reasonable, and if the intensity of those feelings, opinions and actions seem appropriate, we can say we understand and approve of them.
If we hope to get others to understand and approve of us, Smith argues, we will likely need to temper how we express our feelings and opinions, and exhibit restraint in our actions.
For example, imagine the office worker who has been working for several weeks on a major project. Now imagine that the worker's supervisor tells him that the client has changed their mind and that he has to completely start over. This is understandably frustrating. But, if that worker was to violently react (not just internally but outwardly to others) to this change in assignment, he would be less likely to receive sympathy from his colleagues and his supervisor than if he merely expressed his frustration and then went back to work.
The immoderate reaction would likely cause him to lose his job. The moderate reaction would likely win him esteem from his co-workers.
In order to get sympathy or commiseration from others, Smith explains, we moderate our expression of our feelings and actions so that others can better understand and approve of our actions. If we fail to garner sympathy, we can learn from this experience and adapt accordingly.
Our social interactions, if they are to be pleasant and productive, must involve this process of moderation and adjustment. If political discourse is viewed as a battle of ideas, political life will be about winning ideological wars and not about addressing our common concerns. If we are unwilling to put in the work of garnering or giving sympathy, we will not discover strategies for better relating to one another, and avoiding polarization.
Aurelian Craiutu, in "Faces of Moderation," has echoed Adam Smith's call for moderation and has recommended it as a virtue we should aspire to in our political exchanges. In a book panel hosted by the Mercatus Center last year, he argued that "moderates are interested in promoting relationships with their political opponents and keep the dialogue open with them." They promote a tolerant approach because "they tend not to see the world in binary terms, friends and foes."
The way out of our current political climate is not to seek total victory against the opposing party. Instead, it is to seek recognition and understanding, and to cultivate sympathy for one another. In order to do this, we must be willing to follow Smith's advice to moderate, not our views or political positions, but our political expressions.